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Mother and daughter bring Mohegan history to life in radio plays

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel and daughter Madeline Sayet have written on their own, and they have often sought out each other’s advice on their work. But they have now formally co-written a piece for the first time — a series of radio plays focusing on Mohegan history.

Zobel and Sayet are well-known members of the Mohegan Tribe. Zobel is the tribe's historian and medicine woman. Sayet is executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, and she has developed a thriving career in theater as a writer, director and actor.

During the pandemic, they worked together on writing the five radio plays that became “Up and Down the River.” Sayet directed. The pieces were commissioned by HartBeat Ensemble in Hartford, and HartBeat artistic director Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. had approached Sayet and Zobel about doing a project.

The performers include Mohegan Tribal Nation members Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, David Uncas Sayet and Madeleine Hutchins.

“Up and Down the River” is available now through Dec. 31 for free on HartBeat Ensemble’s website, www.hartbeatensemble.org.

The radio plays echo what were vital issues for the Mohegans during various eras.

“The 1600s is: Are we going to survive?” Zobel said. “The 1700s is more: How much are we going to have to become like the Europeans to get by? And the 1800s is about: How much can we save of ourselves and our traditions without being sent out West?”

The radio play set in the 1900s, meanwhile, is about the old Indian world where people worked in balance, Zobel said, adding, “It’s also about what we save and what we hold onto and what matters to all of us and what needs to go forward. So each of these stories explores the heart of what it is (to be) Mohegan in times of great challenge.”

Sayet said that working on the plays gave her mother and her the chance to consider important historical Mohegan figures as people.

“We were thinking about the difficult choices Mohegan leaders had to make and what they might have been thinking in those time periods,” she said.

The idea that “we’re going to tell this scene from history — what were (these historical figures) thinking? I think that’s a really different way to approach history,” Sayet said. “ ... There’s something about telling history and community this way that has great potential in terms of how we learn these things in ways that really sit deeper within us and help us figure out how to make our own decisions.”

A matriarchal culture

The information accompanying the radio plays on the HartBeat Ensemble website states, “When English colonists arrived in the Mohegan homeland on the Massapequotuck River (now called the Thames) four centuries ago, cultures clashed due to Mohegan beliefs in a many-spirited religion, matriarchal leadership, extended kinship and the animacy of sacred objects, landforms and weather beings. These radio plays dramatize those challenging differences.”

One of the things that Zobel wanted to explore was something she always looked at: women who are left out of the story.

“In our culture, we’re a matriarchal culture. Our traditional stories tend to focus on women, and our histories for a long time focused on men,” she said.

Listen to a clip from 'Draw Down The Thunder'

The first radio play — they are ordered by time period — has Mohegan Sachem Uncas’ grandmother coming as a specter to visit Uncas on his last day on Earth. She prompts him to look back on his life and evaluate what he has done as a human being. Zobel called upon her memories of traditional women she knows in writing the grandmother, “the kind of questions they would ask, the kind of things they would say, the kind of sarcastic humor they would use.”

The second play deals with Samson Occom, who was one of the first ordained Native ministers. While Occom traveled to England to raise money for an Indian school here, his family remaining behind suffered greatly; the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock had vowed to take care of Occom’s family but didn’t, in part because Occom’s wife, Mary, wouldn’t be subservient.

The third radio play revolves around Samuel and Mary Ashbow, who came into conflict with each other after he sold her land and supported a mill being built on Mohegan land.

The fourth play explores the Mohegan Church and how a group of female friends — Native and non-Native — devised a way to prevent the Mohegans from being sent out West, as President Andrew Jackson’s Federal Indian Removal policy was forcing upon so many tribes.

And the last play delves into the creation of the Tantaquidgeon Museum, which originally was called Tantaquidgeon Lodge, and how the family had to choose between saving their house and the lodge during a fire.

Zobel said she hopes that people who listen to the radio plays “are surprised that something they didn't know or that they didn’t learn in school about the Mohegans and so that they get a much more three-dimensional sense about us as human beings because so much of our story has been told in relation to the outside world, as opposed to what’s going on internally. In these stories, you get to see a little bit of what’s going on internally.”

People who felt these stories

The cast and creative team for “Up and Down the River” consists almost entirely of people who are citizens of sovereign native nations. For instance, the sound designer is Rory Stitt (Tlingit), and the stage manager is Amanda Luke (Cherokee/Choctaw). There are actors who are Abenaki, Kumeyaay, Shinnecock or Tlingit, in addition to those who are Mohegan.

“We wanted to be sure we used people who really felt these stories,” Zobel said.

They recorded their parts over Zoom, and Sayet noted that it was a quick process, with each play getting a total of four hours of rehearsal and recording.

Zobel said that the Mohegans who were involved in the project were engaged in discussions about line changes.

“That’s the thing I want to do more of,” she said. “I would like to explore these stories more with different Mohegans and see if they can get into the heads of (these figures) ... looking at historical documents, looking at some of the things we have, trying to get into heads of these characters, who they were, what they were going through and what they mean to us.”

Excellence in the arts

While these were the first radio plays the pair had written, Sayet and Zobel both have impressive arts resumes.

Zobel’s play “Flying Bird’s Diary” was a finalist of this year’s National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Her published books include “Wabanaki Blues” and “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon.”

Sayet premiered her solo performance piece “Where We Belong” last year at Shakespeare’s Globe and Richmix in London. She was scheduled to direct “The Great Leap” at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that.

The collaboration between them went smoothly, and that’s something they realize might seem surprising to others.

“I know a lot of people probably can’t imagine a mother and daughter collaboration,” Zobel says. “But we collaborate constantly on everything — both of my daughters and I do because we both do the same kind of work. So, whatever we’re working on, we ask the other one, ‘Do you have any ideas on this?’ ... By the same token, she is much more of a seasoned professional in this field than I am. There were times where I had to stand back and say, ‘Yeah, you'd better take this because I have no idea what to do.’”

They would send drafts back and forth.

“It was actually fun. It was interesting because she knows history so well, and what I know is dramatic form,” Sayet said.

She noted, “I feel very grateful Godfrey proposed the idea of doing something that sort of tells the story of Connecticut.”

 k.dorsey@theday.com

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